Questionable: How do you make two timelines work?

CateM wrote: “I’m trying to do one of those dual timelines in a story, where Plot A is the protagonist’s current story, and Plot B is a story from their past. I’ve watch this structure go bad many, many times (*cough* Arrow *cough*), but I also know I’ve seen it work really well before (Big Fish, Second Hand Lions). The problem is, in my favorite examples, the past storyline either features a different protagonist than the present storyline, or the past storyline is the main story, and the present is just a framing device (The Notebook, for all its problems).  Anyone have any thoughts about what makes this structure work, and what makes it not work? Or examples of ones that work for you, even if you can’t put your finger on why?”

The big problem with running two story lines is that readers/viewers will like one better and see the other as an intrusion, aka the parts people skip. Arrow is an excellent example of that; anytime I’ve gone back to watch again, I’ve fast forwarded through the flashbacks and never missed them.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read or seen a narrative that does make that work, and then they tend not to be traditional linear stories (the present story with flashbacks) but more framed stories or patterned plots.  So assuming you want. linear structure with flashbacks, I think you have to ask yourself some questions.

  1. Why do you need both stories?
  2. Which one is more important?
  3. Can you do memory instead of flashback?


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Echoes and Sharpies

Krissie bought me a pack of colored Sharpies the last time she was here and I’ve been working them like crazy, trying to track the echoes in Nita.  “Echoes” is not a technical term, but “motif” isn’t right for this and repetition is too general.  What I’m talking about here, folks, is a scene that recurs, shifting each time to arc a character or plot point.  For example . . .

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Questionable: How Do You Move a Story Through Time?

Colognegrrl asked:
I am presently working on a manuscript that has been giving me hell. I know where I’m coming from and where I want to end, but in between are a lot of problems. The main challenge is to fill the time gaps, you know like “this scene is on Sunday and the next important thing happens on Thursday, but what did she do in between? She must have met the guy, she must have done this and that, it’s too boring to tell but how do you take the reader from Sunday to Thursday …?”

This is called a segue and it’s used all the time. The easiest way is to dump everything into a clause: 

“For the next five days, Jane tried to pretend she didn’t care, throwing herself into her work, but on Thursday . . . “

If stuff happens during that time, you may need a full sentence: 

“Jane snapped at her mother on Sunday, savaged a client on Monday, kicked a dog on Tuesday, wept helplessly at work on Wednesday, and then fired her assistant on Thursday when he said, ‘This has to stop.’ Except he was right, so she rehired him and then that afternoon went to see Richard.”  Worst case scenario: It takes an entire paragraph as summary.

The key is to find out if there’s any info in that five days that must be on the page.  If there isn’t, stick with the basics:

“Five days later, Jane . . . “

Questionable: How Do You Start and Develop Subplots?

K asked:
Do you start out knowing all of the subplots? Or do they tumble and bump into each other along the way? Are there certain ways you like to develop subplots? Or do they just come to you?  Are they villain driven?

As I believe I’ve said before, I don’t recommend my method. I never know what the hell I’m doing in the beginning.  I just write.  Characters show up.  Some of them are interesting enough they develop their own plot lines.  Some of those I have to put the kibosh on because they’re cluttering up the story (good-bye, Mort).  Some of them echo the main plot or act as a foil to the main plot, and they deepen what’s happening in the story as a whole, so I keep them (hello, Max and Button).  So for the first discovery draft, I just let them happen. After that, as always, I analyze. And to analyze I go back to basic plot structure.

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Questionable: Patterned Structure

Briana wrote:

I am fascinated by and want more about patterned structures in story-telling. I don’t have a specific question, though . . . .

To understand patterned structure, you have to forget cause-and-effect, chronological order, and time as indicators of story movement. Patterned structure is an entirely different animal, in many ways female to the overtly male linear structure. Continue reading

Questionable: Love Scenes, Sex Scenes, Erotica

S said:

I would love to hear more about the difference between making love, having sex and erotica in a romance novel. What exactly makes them different from each other? . . . I always hear it described as ‘different levels of sizzle or heat’ but it seems to me that there is more to the grading than that. . . . Are there market expectations now re detailed sex? Romance novels seem to be getting more and more graphic (or maybe those are just the ones I’m buying!) I noticed in the [comments to the favorite love scene post] how few people listed a love scene that had any sex in it – I think I spotted one that took place in a bed. That’s interesting.

Sex is in the eye of the beholder.

Let me put that another way. Continue reading

Questionable: Back Story and Flashback

Katie Redhead said:

I vote yes to discussing how and when to deploy backstory effectively . . . And maybe I’m sort of asking another question all together about flashbacks vs backstory and whether which way we get the information makes a difference to how I feel about a character.

Let’s start with what back story is, then go on to the difference between flashback and memory as a way of putting back story on the page, and then talk about back story and character. Continue reading

Managing Plot and Subplot

I watched three TV episodes this week about teams of good guys battling a mastermind who communicated with minions using ear coms. Two of them aired in the past week, the other is several years old, but the basic plot was the same: bring down the mastermind. The difference was in the way the stories used their subplots, and it was a big difference.

(Important Note: This is NOT a writing technique, it’s a critical approach. Don’t do this for your own stories, it’ll make you insane.) Continue reading

Sharp Soap: Why I’m An Arrow Fangirl

I’ve been on a writing wonk tear recently. I had two books going at once, and both were blocked, so I threw myself into good TV, trying to find a different way into story and ended up with a third book because I’ve become so fascinated by episodic storytelling. I’ve been taking apart everything I’ve been watching, trying to see how it works or doesn’t work, and there are several series I’ve been particularly fascinated by because of the choices their showrunners make, good and bad. I’ve learned a lot from Sherlock, Life on Mars, and Person of Interest among others, but the show that has reawakened my old zest for storytelling is an over-the-top superhero series that I started watching because I was stuck in a rental house and losing my mind. It took me a couple of episodes to notice what the writers were doing on Arrow, but once I wrapped my mind around it, I realized that there was a lot the show could teach me if I was just open to it. If I had to use one word to describe the showrunners and writers behind Arrow, it would be “fearless.” Also, possibly “drunk,” because these people will go anywhere. Continue reading

Zelda 3: Beats and Bad Timing

I played hookey today and wrote 3500 words on my Fun Book, the one that’s not under contract and won’t be for months. I guess that’s Busman’s Hookey, isn’t it? Shirking work to do work? But it’s so much fun to have a book I’m not talking about, one that I’m just playing with. Everything I wrote is Don’t Look Down Draft which means it’s going to need massive rewrites, but still that’s some work there.

Then I went back to You Again and looked at the first scene. You remember, the one I cut more than half of. It’s still too long. It has too many beats, I think.

The same way stories are broken into scenes, scenes are broken into beats of conflict. Each beat is a struggle of its own that has a climax/turning point that throws the scene into the next beat. I like three-beat scenes because I think that’s a natural rhythm for people, but it’s not something I’m rigid about. If a scene has four beats or two beats and it works, fine by me.

Zelda’s first scene has six beats.

• The first beat is her in the car, arguing with Scylla about going into Rosemore.

• The second is facing Rose at the front door and then yielding and going in.

• The third is in the entry where Rose tells her she wants her to come to Rosemore permanently to start a garden/nursery.

• The fourth is in the hallway where Rose tells Zelda about her mother.

• The fifth is in the entry, Zelda on her way out the door, when Rose tells her if she stays she’ll help her find her father.

• The sixth is Rose’s final move which defeats Zelda completely in this scene, fulfilling everything she was afraid of in the first beat.

I can cut the mother stuff and use that later, i think. That gives me five beats.

And her fight with Rose is really just these four beats:

• At the door, resisting going into the entry hall (Scylla).

• In the entryway, resisting going into the central hall (garden).

• In the central hall, making a break for the entry (father.

•In the entry way, not making it out the door and falling into Rose’s clutches.

Except I need that beat with Scylla at the beginning to set the hook and show the reader how much Zelda dreads Rosemore. Except that’s not part of the struggle. Except Rose is in cahoots with Scylla so it IS the first beat of her struggle with Rose. Except the reader won’ t know that, so it’ll feel like I’m switching antagonists.

So it’s

1. In the car, resisting going into Rose’s clutches (Rose speaking through Scylla)
2. At the door, resisting going into the entry hall (Scylla).
3. In the entryway, resisting going into the central hall (garden).
4. In the central hall, making a break for the entry (father.
5. n the entry way, not making it out the door and falling into Rose’s clutches.

That’s still a lot of beats, and that first one is still iffy. Argh. And none of it echoes the last scene which is a pain in the butt because I like to bookend.

So maybe Zelda doesn’t make a break for it. Let’s try this again. Since she’s going to be fighting going out the back door in the climax, maybe she’ll just be fighting going in here.

1. In the car, resisting going into Rose’s clutches (Rose speaking through Scylla)
2. At the door, resisting going into the entry hall (Scylla).
3. In the entryway, resisting going into the central hall (garden).
4. In the central hall, resisting going into the sitting room (father).
5. Trapped in the hall, falling into Rose’s clutches.

Still too much stuff. The scene won’t bear that much info.

1. In the car, resisting going into Rose’s clutches (Rose speaking through Scylla)
2. At the door, resisting going into the entry hall (Scylla, garden).
3. In the entryway, resisting going into the central hall (father).
4. In the central hall, falling into Rose’s clutches.

So more cutting. And shaping because each of those beats should get shorter and right now they don’t. I just rambled. Time to tighten things up, get those rhythms in place so I can go write the last scene and balance them.

Except now it feels too short, too abrupt. Oh, hell, I’m just going to have to go back in and write it. At least it’s not a million slow beats now.